We may never know the whole truth of what led to the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, but the chronology and intricate plotting on display in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty - as controversial as they have proven to be - make for riveting cinema. It's a movie whose heart pulses at a rapid rate that, in certain scenes, will match your own.
With her 2008 film about a bomb squad unit in Iraq, The Hurt Locker, Bigelow defied traditionalists and misogynists alike who may have been puzzled as to how a woman director could make such a taut, gutsy war movie. Upending such stereotyping, she became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar and had some fans hoping she'd make nothing but war movies. She has a beautiful and sinewy facility with action sequences that never forgets there are humans composed of flesh and bone underneath every helmet and flak suit.
The film, written by Bigelow's Hurt Locker partner, Mark Boal, is structured like an epic three-act play and told from the stealthily cool point-of-view of Maya (Jessica Chastain), based on a real CIA agent (so far unnamed) who made bin Laden's demise her complete focus. Act one begins in a dark, soulless room where, under Maya's mute watch, a prisoner named Ammar (Reda Kateb) is being harshly interrogated by a fellow agent (Jason Clarke) not averse to "enhanced interrogation" techniques - including simulated drowning, shame-based nudity, and confined enclosures - that may or may not have really happened and may or may not be considered torture.
Once broken, Ammar has credibility, which complements Maya's homework and leads to a logical plan: because bin Laden would be too vulnerable via a telephone or the internet, he must be utilizing a courier. The search for that confidante's identity makes up the taut, suspenseful second act where, in a chaotic, crowded street market, key personnel are listening for the unique ring they've programmed into one solitary cell phone - a fairly easy task, one would think, were there not throngs of people with their own phones.
Zero Dark Thirty is military speak for a half hour after midnight, which marks the beginning of the third act - the Navy S.E.A.L. team's hushed, risky raid into Pakistan. Among the team are Joel Edgerton as the intense squadron's team leader and Parks & Rec's Chris Pratt as the soldier everyone from the Pacific Northwest to the Everglades can identify as the town's most likable lug who happened to go to war and cement himself in history.
The raid on the compound is often shot through the eerie green tint of night vision goggles in what seems to be real time and, though the outcome is never in question, the hair-raising tension is palpable.
If there's a scene that stands out for its perfect composition - thanks to Bigelow's eye and her like-minded cinematographer Greig Fraser - it comes just after the team heads off for the kill. We see black helicopters set like an optical illusion against the black night and black hills they're flying over. Divided between two helicopters, the soldiers sit and wait, dreading and anticipating, as quiet as mice, the war game they've never played but are about to win.